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Eamon Grennan's Life Studies

Illuminated Manuscripts

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Last Updated: 01/28/2020 4:05 am
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It's impossible to meet Eamon Grennan without knowing at once where he's from. His musical lilt, wild thicket of eyebrow, and affable smile are every bit as Irish as his name. So it's a bit startling to hear that the Dublin-born poet has identity issues.

The Vassar professor emeritus and author of Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010) has lived in the US since 1965, when he became a graduate student at Harvard, but has never sought citizenship. "I'm a resident alien—like every poet, I suppose," he says with relish. Perceived as an Irishman in Poughkeepsie and an expatriate in Ireland, Grennan describes himself as "neither here nor there—or rather, here and there.

"One of the things I was working toward with Out of Sight was that doubleness as the dominant feature," he attests. "I'm seen as an Irish poet who writes American poetry, or an American poet inflected with Irishness—as a poet of both places."

Indeed. Grennan's poetry flows like a body of water between native and adopted shores; it's no accident that Out of Sight begins and ends at the liminal edge of the ocean, where shorebirds skitter and tides perform their daily cycles. The book's first line is "I would like to let things be"; the last is "the jag-line leading from this to that, before you turn for home." In between are two decades of work that amount to an autobiography of sight and reflection.

Plainspoken and richly evocative, Grennan's poems are filled with birds, plants, and water, with windows and light—the natural world and the means by which we perceive it. "There are not a lot of people in my poems," he remarks a bit ruefully, but there's one who is present in every line: the poet himself, as a preternaturally sharp-eyed, full-hearted observer of life in its glorious, aching detail. Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins has written, "Few poets are as generous as Eamon Grennan in the sheer volume of delight his poems convey, and fewer still are as attentive to the available marvels of the earth."

The surface narrative of a Grennan poem is often an everyday moment—a bee becomes trapped behind window glass, a garbage collector upturns shining cans, a father watches his son embark on a train—that illuminates emotional truths lurking just out of sight. "I'm struck sharp as a heart pain/ by the way this minute brims/ with the whole story," he writes in "Two Climbing."

Perched on a Victorian chaise in Vassar's Rose Parlor, Grennan sports a black sweater, jeans, and a bristling white beard that gives him the air of an uncommonly friendly Mennonite elder. His sentences unspool like great skeins of yarn, winding around and around, adding texture and warmth as he searches for just the right image. He frequently asks, "D'you know what I mean?" or "Is this making sense?"

Along with 30 new poems, Out of Sight includes poems culled from seven previous books. The winnowing process was difficult. "You always feel, 'I'm rejecting these,' as if they were your children," says Grennan. "You choose poems because you feel they still work, that have an organic body, that feel musically like there's a bit of lift, that engage with the world in a way that feels honest. Every poet is a reader first—your reading preceded your writing."

He started reading poetry as a teenager at an Irish boarding school run by Cistercian monks. As a "city boy planted in the middle of the country," discovering Wordsworth and Longfellow helped assuage his loneliness. At Dublin's University College, Grennan wrote poems and stories, joined the drama society, edited a magazine, and hung out in pubs—"what one does as a lively young literary creature." Then he spent a year living in Rome, where he met his first wife, Joan Perkins. (He's been married to Vassar classicist Rachel Kitzinger for the past 25 years.)

Grennan arrived at Vassar in 1974 with his wife and two stepsons, one young baby, and another on the way. Though his specialty was Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, he also taught poetry. Most of his writing was "scholarly stuff, because one had to earn tenure." But he also started to write poems again, and finally took a year off, bringing his family to Ireland. "I went back to write and hook up with my Irishness, but I brought back a sack of American poetry books," he says with a laugh; he has cited Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and numerous others as inspirations.

Grennan's first two collections were published in Ireland, then reprinted in the US in combined form as What Light There Is & Other Poems (Gallery Books, 1987). He compares his first drafts to an artist's life studies, "drawn in situ, the sketchbook side of things." He often starts by jotting a phrase in the small notebook he carries. For a while, he wrote a short poem every day on a calendar page, promising himself that he wouldn't look back till the end of the year, when he "pruned out the deadwood" and started rewriting. "Phrase is the point of entry," he says. "I launch not with the subject or idea, God help us, but with a phrasing of something I've seen. This morning, I watched a deer crossing the garden, and two male mallards and a female swimming upstream. They may make it into a poem."

He hastens to add that his nature poems "aren't merely descriptive, but reflect what's going on in the interior, inflecting it with the emotional consciousness that's your own moment in time." If that sounds abstract, Grennan's 2002 poem "Detail" (see below) demonstrates his approach. As he reads it aloud, the musical cadences are as noteworthy as the poem's conversational tone, unwinding in a single sentence towards the heart-stopping strike of a sparrowhawk "scorching the air."

"A lot of the time when you're dealing with a poem, you're into the technique, making it right, making the music right, when a terrible truth strikes—something literal and metaphorical," Grennan explains. "The best poems occur when the craft is suddenly captured by the emotional truth."

Several of his poems reference painters who likewise illuminate everyday moments, including Bonnard, Chardin, and Vermeer; a critical study of his work is titled "Vermeer in Verse: Eamon Grennan's Domestic Interiors. "The poet selected the Mark Rothko painting on Out of Sight's cover, an untitled abstract that moves though a spectrum of warm colors from blood-red to gold, with a streak of black.

"The book tries to cover a spectrum of what I've felt and experienced, from the natural to the domestic to the erotic to the political, up to a point," he says. "My take on politics is often to do with victims, with things that are cast out, the destruction of some of the things I've celebrated."

Grennan spends part of each year in the west of Ireland, at a cottage his sister found in the village of Renvyle, 65 miles north of Galway. "It's not right on the coast, but I can walk to the sea. That's been hugely important to me and what I do."

So is living near "our magical Hudson." Alongside references to Ballymoney, Connemara, and Tully Mountain, the poems in Out of Sight cite the Catskills, the Mid-Hudson Bridge, northeastern fall foliage ("The hills/ a witch's quilt of goldrust, flushed cinnamon, / wine fever, hectic lemon"), and a virtual aviary of local birds.

"As a transplanted person, I was trying to locate and name my environment, to look at things more closely," says Grennan, who's come to think of his bicontinental divide as a blessing. "I feel it's my virtue, my difference. Not belonging completely to either place is possibly the reason I have anchored myself in the landscape and in the family. It contributed to the way I've turned out as a writer."

Eamon Grennan looks out at the snow-covered campus, appraising its dusky shadows and apricot glow. "Every poem is an elegy, because the moment is gone," he says. "It's also a celebration. I'd like to box those two things together—a celebratelegy. Saying 'This happened' is the kind of thing you might put on your gravestone. And given my character and native instinct, I'd add, "'And it's okay that it did.'"

Detail

I was watching a robin fly after a finch—the smaller bird

chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent

in light-winged earnest chase—when, out of nowhere

over the chimneys and shivering front gardens,

flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn

scorching the air from which it simply plucks

like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three

cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence

closing over the empty street when the birds have gone

about their own business, and I began to understand

how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small

elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth

strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

Eamon Grennan, "Detail" from Out of Sight: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002, 2010 by Eamon Grennan. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org

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